OLYMPIA – Gestures are important in politics. They can be grand, even when seemingly made on a small scale. Or they can just be small.
Among the small gestures considered most legislative sessions are requests to add some emblem or design to state license plates, to raise a bit of money and honor an institution, organization or activity. Thus we have license plates for Cougs and Huskies, and other institutions of higher learning; for the various branches of the armed services; for bicyclists and parks, pets and lighthouses, endangered wildlife and square dancing.
This year, there are proposals to add special plates for the state flower (coast rhododendron, in case you forgot), 4-H and the National Rifle Association. Extra money raised from the plates would go, respectively, to the Meerkerk Rhododendron Garden and other efforts to preserve plants; to the 4-H foundation to help replace money disappearing as governments tighten their belts; and to support state hunting and firearms training courses.
All good causes, to be sure. But do they require their own license plate? After all, given the cost of designing and producing a specialized license plate, couldn’t these causes net out more cash if, say, all the folks with NRA stickers on their pickups, who also were inclined to support a firearms course, just sent the cash directly to a special account. How many more NRA emblems does a vehicle need?
But there’s one other request for a specialized plate that’s not such a small gesture...
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... It symbolizes something deeper by expanding the eligibility for an existing plate that can be issued only to former prisoners of war.
While most specialized plates are designed at least partly to raise money, the POW plate is strictly about honor. A former POW does not pay a special fee, or for that matter any license fee or excise tax. It is, one must admit, the least the state can do for someone who spent time in a Stalag, a prison camp or the Hanoi Hilton. It’s not a huge cost to the state: There are, right now, 32 POW plates issued for vehicles in Washington.
SB 6467 would expand eligibility to the Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II. Prisoners of war, by their own government.
About 9,000 Japanese Americans in Washington were swooped up in the post Pearl Harbor hysteria, the Senate Transportation Committee was told last week. They were herded off to camps like Minidoka, Idaho, for several years, and possibly returned to find homes confiscated and belongings gone. About 1,000 internees volunteered for military service, many fighting in the 442 Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units of the war.
About 4,000 former internees are still living in Washington, Don White, a former lobbyist who helped launch some of the specialty plates, told the committee. When the POW plates were first conceived, Japanese American internees were supposed to be included, he added. The fact that they weren’t in that original bill was an oversight that SB 6467 would correct.
How many would take advantage of the plate is unclear. Many of those 4,000 are probably not driving – a baby born at Minidoka would be a senior citizen today. Adults would be in their 80s or 90s.
Even those who do drive might not buy them, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat whose district includes many internees: “My guess is that very few of the survivors. . . would ever get these license plates because they rarely talk about it. But I think the symbolism of including them in this category is an acknowledgement the state could make that is meaningful.”
The committee, however, isn’t through tinkering with the bill. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the prime sponsor, thinks maybe the state should instead produce a special license plate for internees, and charge a fee, which could help raise money for a monument to Japanese American veterans.
The logic of this seems questionable. People who turn down a free plate that honors them because they don’t want to advertise they were internees aren’t likely to pay extra for a plate that shows the same thing, just to help out a monument. They’d just cut out the middleman and send a check to the Nisei Veterans Committee, which is building the monument.
“We’d kind of like to work on it a little more,” Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island and the chairwoman of the committee, said.
Not work so hard, one would hope, that they turn a grand gesture into a small one.